Engineering science professor Bernhard Rabus (centre) and Jayson Eppler (left), a research engineer at MDA and PhD student in electrical engineering, working under the supervision of professor Rabus.

NSERC chair to further Canada’s leadership role in space-based radar

November 29, 2016

Simon Fraser University is partnering with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to spur innovation in space-based radar technologies and work-integrated learning.

On behalf of this new partnership, President Andrew Petter today announced the appointment of SFU engineering science professor Bernhard Rabus to a new $2.25-million Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair in Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR).

The chair’s goal is to advance space-based SAR technology, foster innovation, and improve the Canadian space industry’s global competitiveness to boost economic growth. In addition, the partnership aims to prepare graduate students and post-doctoral fellows for careers in the space sector, where half the workforce comprises highly qualified personnel (HQP) who hold undergraduate and graduate degrees.

SAR technology uses microwave pulses to capture high-definition images of the Earth’s surface from space. Governments, commercial users and scientists can use it to monitor, assess and react to natural and human-induced processes, such as climate and environmental changes.

Unlike traditional optical methods, SAR works independently of the weather and can capture images through rain, clouds and darkness.

Space-based SAR applications include:

  • Monitoring Canada’s North to understand the stability and evolution of permafrost, glaciers and ice sheets;
  • Providing daily monitoring of sea ice to enable safe navigation through ice-infested waters;
  • Monitoring and safeguarding national assets, natural resources and the environment;
  • Predicting and measuring landslides, volcanic and seismic activities to keep critical infrastructure and people safe, and to rapidly recover from such natural disasters;
  • Providing reliable, frequent, broad-area surveillance for defence and national security, such as monitoring ships approaching Canada; and,
  • Monitoring oil on water, and critical infrastructures like pipelines.

Rabus will focus on creating new techniques and more efficient data-processing methods for SAR, while developing the next generation of talent and expertise through work-integrated learning initiatives for students. His graduate students and post-doctoral fellows will split their time between the new SAR lab at SFU’s Burnaby campus and MDA’s facility in Richmond, B.C.

“It is critical for Canada to retain its leadership position in SAR, and this means driving innovation and developing highly qualified experts,” says

Norman Hannaford, MDA’s vice president and general manager responsible for surveillance and intelligence business.

“We are pleased to support this work-integrated learning process with such a high-calibre university.”

Rabus, who earned his PhD in geophysics from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, led a SAR-focused research and development team at MDA for more than 12 years.

“Collaborating with MDA provides us with invaluable access to data and experts working on real problems,” he says. “This partnership will deepen our understanding of using space-based radar, re-affirming Canada’s role as a leader in SAR and its applications.”

The SAR chair has been created with $2.25 million in funding from the partnership between MDA, NSERC, CSA and SFU. In addition, MDA is providing in-kind contributions that total more than $1.3 million.

The team will analyze data from multiple space-based SAR satellites, including Canada’s RADARSAT-2 satellite, and the upcoming RADARSAT Constellation Mission, under development for the CSA.


  • SAR is a remote-sensing technique that captures high-definition images of Earth from space.
  • Sensors transmit microwave pulses and record reflections from the Earth’s surface, revealing key characteristics of its surface, such as vegetation and infrastructure.
  • Sophisticated algorithms process the raw data to create the final high-definition images that are used to derive business-relevant information.
  • Two or more SAR images acquired over the same area and with the same imaging geometry, but at different times, can be used to derive subtle changes that have occurred in the area and provide essential information of changes or movements.  It is therefore a critical tool in environmental and natural resource monitoring and maritime surveillance and security.

Quotes from partners involved in developing the Industrial Research Chair in Synthetic Aperture Radar.

Joy Johnson, Vice-President Research and International, Simon Fraser University

“The NSERC Chair in Synthetic Aperture Radar and partnership with MDA is an important step towards SFU’s goal of being a world leader in cutting-edge research and innovation. The Chair will position SFU as a leader in space-based technology and spur innovative development at Canada’s most engaged university.”

Sylvain Laporte, President, Canadian Space Agency

 “The CSA is pleased to contribute to this industrial research chair in Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), a well-known Canadian expertise. We hope to improve SAR technologies to better address our needs here on earth while providing hands-on experience and internship opportunities in the space sector for students enrolled in this initiative.”

B. Mario Pinto, President, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC)

“NSERC is proud to collaborate with key players pushing the frontiers in space-based radar technologies. This investment will provide the crucial training, knowledge and technologies for Canada to adapt to climate change and influence emerging fields such as precision agriculture.”

Full media release.